When millions watched Barack Obama give his history-making victory speech in Grant Park on election night, one thing stood out starkly – the bulletproof screen surrounding him. But just how serious is the threat of assassination to the President-elect?
By Andrew Gumbel
Sunday, 16 November 2008
Shawn Adolf and his cousin Tharin Gartrell fancied that 28 August, 2008 would be a good day for the next president of the United States to die. They had the guns – Gartrell was later caught with a Ruger Model M77 Mark II bolt-action rifle with an attached scope and bipod, and a Remington Model 721, also with a scope. They were believers in a radical white supremacist ideology that gave them the motivation they needed to risk their own lives, if necessary, to prevent a black man from entering the Oval Office. (Or, as a friend reported Adolf as saying: “No nigger should ever live in the White House.”)
Like many assassins before them, both the successful ones and the idle fantasists, Adolf and Gartrell took their inspiration from popular culture. They considered hiding a rifle inside a hollowed out television camera – an idea they borrowed from the Kevin Costner-Whitney Houston vehicle The Bodyguard. (It is also similar to the way al-Qa’eda operatives posing as a news crew assassinated Ahmad Shah Massoud, the leader of Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, on 9 September, 2001, but it is far from clear whether Adolf and Gartrell had any notion of this.)
They toyed with the idea of hitting Obama from as far away as 750 yards, using one of their high-powered rifles; according to their friend Nathan Johnson, who may or may not have been part of the plot, they had in mind the conspiracy theory that President Kennedy was not shot by Lee Harvey Oswald from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository building, but rather by professional assassins stationed on the “grassy knoll” above Dallas’s Dealey Plaza.
None of these plans was ever remotely realistic, however. Adolf and Gartrell may have had some fearsome weaponry, and a vague affiliation with a white supremacist biker gang called the Sons of Silence, which disavowed them the moment they were arrested. But they were also rank amateurs living in a crystal methamphetamine-induced haze of paranoia and race hatred. (One can’t help thinking Adolf’s name went to his head, at least a little, as he fingered the swastika ring on his finger.) They had no clue how to circumvent the security surrounding Obama – prosecutors who examined their plans laughed them off as ludicrously naïve. And they couldn’t even figure out what every half-interested member of the press corps knew, that Obama was not staying at the Hyatt Regency, the temporary HQ of the Democratic National Committee, but at a different hotel altogether.
Four days before Obama’s acceptance speech, Gartrell was pulled over for drunk-driving in the Denver suburb ‘ of Aurora after a patrol officer spotted his rented Dodge Ram truck swerving erratically, and the whole plot, such as it was, fell apart almost instantly. Certainly, the officer found plenty inside the truck to sound alarm bells – the two high-powered rifles, a silencer, a bulletproof vest, camouflage clothing, and three fake identification cards. But it was also clear that Gartrell was high on meth as well as drunk. The truck contained enough drug-making equipment to be considered a mobile meth lab.
Gartrell ratted out Johnson and Adolf almost as soon as he was taken in and photographed for his singularly striking mugshot. (With his bleached blonde hair, heavy silver earrings and pierced lip, he looks like the neo-Nazi from central casting.) Johnson was in the room at the Hyatt Regency, and wasted no time in talking himself – insisting he had no idea about any assassination plot while almost simultaneously telling the world Adolf was planning to “go down in a blaze of glory” and take Obama with him.